Matthew McConaughey is brilliantly repulsive in Killer Joe

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Killer Joe: Matthew McConaughey shakes off his romantic lead personae

Fair play to Matthew McConaughey. If he wanted to ditch his image as the star of innumerable crap rom-coms, then the decision to appear as a silver-tongued, dead-eyed psycho in Killer Joe is one of the smartest he’s ever made.

It’s worth noting that McConaughey has a track record in these sort of roles. Back in 2002, he was terrific in Bill Paxton’s horror movie Frailty, and in Killer Joe he channels that same creepiness. People expecting the screen persona from the likes of Fools Gold will be horrified; everyone else will likely be thrilled at seeing a star change his image so radically.

Directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist; The French Connection), Killer Joe is a big-screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ first play (Friedkin previously adapted Letts’ Bug into a film in 2007). Opening to the startling images of Texan thunderstorms and snarling dogs, the film is cranked up to 11 from the off and never lets up. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in trouble: he’s in debt to a local gangster but has a plan. By bumping off his estranged mother, he’ll collect on a $50,000 life insurance policy. He just needs the right man for the job. Enter ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas Police Detective who moonlights as a hitman.

Unable to pay Killer Joe the necessary $25,000 advance, Chris offers up his virginal sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer. It doesn’t take long before the malevolent Joe inveigles his way into the family and things spiral completely out of control for Chris, Dottie, their idiotic father Ansel (Thomas Haden-Church) and his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon).

A familiar theme throughout all of Friedkin’s work is the notion that ordinary life conceals extraordinary, even horrifying depths. In The Exorcist, an ordinary suburban American home was invaded by the Devil; in his 1987 film Rampage, an unremarkable individual went on a murder spree. This time we’re presented with a repulsive redneck family whose attempts to pay off debts expose tenuous loyalties and festering hatred, a family who are willing to prostitute and exploit their own kind for the sake of money. We get the sense they’re just a couple of generations away from the nut jobs in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The problem is all of the characters are so revolting that it precludes sympathy. Even the apparently angelic Dottie is more contradictory than she appears, at once fascinated and repelled by the darkness of Joe’s character as he wines and dines her over tuna-casserole, one of many scenes which culminates in stomach-turning degradation. The worst of these scenes has already gained an instant notoriety. Suffice it to say, people won’t look at a KFC Bucket in the same way again.

For all the terrific performances (McConaughey, Temple and Gershon as the uninhibited wife are standouts), technical excellence and brilliantly managed air of impending catastrophe, it’s an emotionally aloof movie. The characters start at a level of shrieking hysteria and continue that way for the proceeding 100 minutes, and it’s never clear whether Friedkin is saying things of substance or exploiting the worst kind of stock archetypes for crude effect.

Still, it’s wonderful to see a leading man so brilliantly cast-off the shackles of type-casting, and even if the movie is too cold to stand as one of the best of the year, at least it has the balls to end with one of the year’s sickest, most audacious punch lines. Nothing, it seems, is more ridiculous than family, and the closing reels seem to confirm the movie’s agenda: this is an absurdist comedy that’s blacker than pitch, only recommended to those with the strongest of stomachs.